Sisters Kim J. Dolniak and Debbie Rudawsky never envisioned themselves carrying the family business into its third generation.
Their grandfather was the founder of award-winning St. Louis County & Yellow Cab in 1935. They helped their father when it was his turn to take the reins of the legacy operation, but decided to follow their own paths when it came time to establish their careers.
“Debbie and I had no desire to work in the taxi business,” Dolniak admits. She went on to spend 18 years in the hospitality industry with Drury Hotels, while her sister put her financial prowess to work. “We never thought that we’d be in transportation, even though it was the family business and we grew up helping with it.”
It wasn’t until Debbie and her husband Basil had their first child in the early ’90s that the conversation turned to succession planning—and it was Basil who shifted gears from IT and computers to join the taxi company first.
“I changed my career to do it because they’re family, and being involved in the family business seemed like an attractive, long-term decision to make,” he says. “And it has really panned out well.”
Debbie soon joined her husband, and Dolniak made the trifecta complete in 2005, three years after BEST Transportation Chauffeured Services entered the luxury side of the ground transportation scene as a six-vehicle operation in 2002.
“When we decided to start BEST in July of 2002, it was because we saw a lot of our cab drivers getting their own cars and starting one-vehicle black car companies,” Basil says. “The black car trend that began on the East and West coasts was really starting to come alive here. We thought why lose all that revenue to these up-and-coming companies—let’s create our own.”
Today, the three form the well-rounded executive team at BEST. Far from being a scenario with too many strong personalities wrestling for control, they all agree that trusting and respecting the skills each one brings to the table has made for a harmonious, complementary three-person leadership team that shares common goals and values while thriving on teamwork. Kim, Debbie, and Basil assumed the roles of President, CFO, and COO, respectively.
“We know that among the three of us, we balance out one another but we also stay in our own lanes,” Debbie says. “But we come together as a team for big decisions. Ultimately, we all have the same goals: We want to be successful businesspeople, and we want to see our companies grow and provide ongoing opportunities for our team members. It keeps us going in the same direction.”
Respect is both a value and a responsibility that none of the three take lightly; in fact, it is a cornerstone philosophy that has helped the BEST team become ... well, the best team.
It is a value that begins with the company’s mission statement—which Dolniak says is “posted all over the office”—of respecting everyone and everything BEST is connected to: “Our family of companies commits to going that extra mile for our customers, team, independent operators, and community. We will exceed expectations in everything we do: It’s how we do business.”
"We know that among the three of us, we balance out one another but we also stay in our own lanes. But we come together as a team for big decisions. Ultimately, we all have the same goals ..." - Debbie Rudawsky, CFO of BEST Transportation of St. LouisThere are no shortcuts to success, and Kim, Debbie, and Basil are all fiercely dedicated to ensuring that every BEST team member (the word “employee” is stricken from the office lexicon, and so is “boss,” because Dolniak says she does not like the divisive mentality their connotations can foster) is as invested in exemplary, above-and-beyond service as they are. The hiring process is designed to zero in on candidates who are a good match for the team—and vice versa.
“We really look to find a person who is the right fit for our team, but we also want to make sure that we’re the right fit for them because we might not be the right company for everyone,” Dolniak says. “We want someone who’s going to challenge things and bring fresh ideas to BEST, and I think that’s helped us a lot.”
Though there certainly is no shortage of fresh ideas coming from an executive team that’s hungry for diversification. When the BEST mission statement refers to a “family of companies,” that’s not just County & Yellow Cab and its livery offspring. That also includes GO BEST Express, which was founded in 2009 after the company won a five-year bid with St. Louis Lambert International Airport (which has since been renewed) for its shared-ride contract. GO BEST has two counters at Lambert, where the likes of tourists and convention-goers can grab a ride to downtown hotels in comfort.
Because St. Louis is home to far more than the iconic 630-foot arch welcoming travelers to the Gateway to the West: The largest metropolitan area in Missouri (it also ranks among the top 20 in the United States) is a veritable economic and commercial hub that attracts both businesses travelers and business headquarters alike. Anheuser-Busch, Express Scripts, Boeing, Bayer, Edward Jones, and Purina are just a few big names with headquarters in St. Louis. You’ll also find more than 2.8M residents; on-the-go corporate road warriors; and a growing medical, pharmaceutical, and research presence that all continue to thrive in the greater metropolitan area.
The city enjoys the geographical advantage of proximity to numerous other Midwestern hubs, so it’s not uncommon for BEST vehicles to be making four- and six-hour treks to reach Chicago, Indiana, and Iowa for its clients. As the company delves deeper into the charter work its executive team sees as their next growth area and accepts more long-distance jobs, they expect to see that radius widen—especially since the Department of Defense certification sees them taking travel requests farther and farther beyond the St. Louis area.
While BEST has decided to eschew putting too many of its eggs in the tourism basket beyond GO BEST Express, its rich cultural offerings make nights on the town and special occasions a reliable market in its own right.
In fact, special occasions are the inspiration behind another venture that saw BEST branching out into all-new territory about two and a half years ago with Town & Country Bridal Boutique. In addition to providing the kind of diversification that Debbie says is crucial to “maintain stability without being extremely vulnerable to major dips and changes in just one industry,” it also was a strategic move that helps BEST get a jump on a retail market that tends to regard wedding transportation as a diminished priority. And, as the shop’s tagline proclaims, it ensures that BEST has brides “covered from your dress to your driver.”
And the executive team feels the same high-touch service that BEST prides itself on is fully on display with Town & Country.
"As soon as you can start investing in developing your people to think like leaders, that’s when you can really start growing your company."“Our clients have said they appreciate how we pay attention to the little things, and that’s what sets us apart,” says Debbie.
Kim J. Dolniak, President of BEST Transportation of St. Louis
“We’ve taken that same mentality to the bridal store: We’re not selling them a gown, we’re giving them an experience,” Basil agrees. “I’m sure that carried over to Town & Country from BEST subconsciously.”
A diversification of offerings naturally lends itself to a diversified fleet, and Dolniak half-jokingly refers to BEST’s classic cars—a 1960 Bentley and 1961 Rolls-Royce—as “the most photographed vehicles in St. Louis” for their popularity with the wedding crowd. (She even used one in her own wedding this past March.)
The rest of BEST’s 49-vehicle fleet err on the traditional corporate-transportation side of things: Sedans, SUVs, executive vans, an ADA-compliant eight-passenger van, minicoaches, motorcoaches, and even one limobus and a single stretch limousine ensure that the BEST team is ready for anything its predominantly corporate clientele throws at them.
“One of our mottos from practically day one was ‘Keep the wheels rolling 24/7,’” Debbie says. “We have a limited capacity: There’s a set amount of vehicles and a finite amount of hours in the day, so whatever we can do to increase our capacity by building a diverse client base is what we decided to do. So that’s why that whole wedding retail market on the weekends is still pretty critical: It’s high profit margins, and those clients might someday be one of our bigger corporate clients. But it’s the corporate clients who keep the wheels rolling Monday through Friday, for sure. That early philosophy helped drive us in all the different directions we need to go so that we have that stability and variety.”
In an additional boost to its creative business solutions, BEST has found that its strong industry relationships present an opportunity to increase its metal without spending more money—which is how the company found itself forging a mutually beneficial partnership with another local company that shares BEST’s high service standards instead of replacing its aging party buses four years ago.
“We started thinking about this great relationship we have with another company whose owner just wanted to be a weekend operator catering to the party bus niche here,” Dolniak explains. “We approached this company about buying some of our party buses for their fleet, then letting us be the sales team to move his vehicles. We have great synergy between our companies and it continues to be a win-win for us all.”
But the BEST executive team says that they don’t just blindly jump at new revenue streams and novel paths. Every decision is the result of Kim, Debbie, and Basil—and often BEST’s team leaders, too—considering a move from all angles and mulling over its long-term implications. It’s why they deliberately waited to dive into outbound affiliate work until about four years ago, and were cautious about adding motorcoaches to their fleet until recently.
In fact, it was BEST’s own empowered team members who advocated the most passionately for entering the motorcoach sector. The owners credit “The Action Team”—Director of Operations Lori DuVall, Director of Sales & Revenue Terry Jackson, Controller Russ LaCroix, and County & Yellow Cab GM Jason Peery—for making motorcoaches a reality at BEST.
“The four of them got together, had multiple meetings, and then they did two different presentations to us before we decided to get the motorcoaches,” Basil says, adding that the leadership quartet holds weekly meetings to tackle projects, address areas of concern, and identify opportunities for the company. “They did all the financial and risk analysis. They did everything you can think of to determine that it was a good business decision for us.”
“The Action Team even said to the three of us to stay out of the way and let them take care of things—which I love!” Dolniak laughs. “This company is not being run by just Debbie, Basil, and me. It definitely takes the whole team, and so many people have really stepped up over the years. It’s taken time to develop a team that’s this strong. They do such a great job.”
Dolniak estimates that more than 300 families rely on BEST and its array of companies “to provide for them and to give them this longevity,” which is a responsibility she, Debbie, and Basil are keenly aware of.
“If these businesses aren’t successful, we’re not the only ones affected by that,” she says.
BEST has many team members who have dedicated decades of their lives to the suite of companies, and the executive team feels it’s their responsibility to reciprocate that support in kind.
“We’re pretty robust in our benefit programs compared to other companies in our sector,” Debbie says. “It costs the company a lot of money but we feel it’s the right thing to do long-term for our team members.”
“Our respect for our team members absolutely has to be genuine,” Dolniak adds. “It goes back to our mission statement: Are we upholding our mission and doing as much for our team members as we expect them to do for our customers?”
In return, the BEST executive team has seen the company culture flourish—and it even begins at the interview stage.
“We try to have at least one of us sit in on new members’ orientations,” Basil says. “When we go around and ask why they chose BEST, almost always, people talk about the day they came in to interview and the way they were treated—and that they could see everyone treating each other well. People walked up to them and welcomed them. It’s pretty amazing to hear that.”
BEST employs 90 full-time team members, 54 of whom are chauffeurs. The 36 members comprising the office staff include the dispatch team, a sales and marketing team, accounting, an HR person, and a DOT compliance/safety expert.
In addition to the four-person Action Team, they also credit Smith System-certified Chauffeur Manager John Duncan for having a key role, one that he worked his way up to since his own days behind the wheel: It’s his job to keep all 54 chauffeurs happy, well-trained, and supported. But the executive team feels that each and every team member plays a crucial role in BEST’s success.
While Kim, Debbie, and Basil are grateful that the adage about people who feel appreciated will always do more than what is expected is not only true but also to BEST’s benefit, it is partially a function of wanting to mold a team that can handle the day-to-day operations so they can focus their efforts and expertise on the future.
“The three of us can be focusing more on what are those next growth areas for the companies,” Dolniak says. “As soon as you can start investing in developing your people to think like leaders, that’s when you can really start growing your company.”
Along with their own unique backgrounds that offer them perspectives of the professional landscape beyond transportation, they are all drawn to additional avenues of education and opportunities to further streamline an already tight ship.
They are quick to credit Andi Gray and the Strategy Leaders team, whose guidance over the past three years has yielded advice that not only led them to rely on a dedicated group of leaders like The Action Team but also identified optimal hiring practices to build the foundation of a strong overall team. Dolniak herself has been a part of the peer group Strategy Leaders’ Enterprise Strategy Group. Additionally, Basil is active with the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association while Debbie and Dolniak both are avid readers who cull actionable advice from an array of entrepreneurial classics like Who Moved My Cheese? and Mike Michalowicz’s Profit First. The whole team believes in spreading knowledge with others, so it comes as no surprise that Dolniak is an active force on Chauffeur Driven’s Education and Editorial committees.
And in BEST’s 16 years, the team has learned an awful lot of crucial lessons that they’re constantly sharing amongst themselves and with the industry at large.
“I think all three of us share what we learn from other organizations and resources, whether it’s going to conferences or doing webinars or reading,” Dolniak posits. “I think we have to keep up on that because it keeps sharpening our saw, and it helps our industry overall.”
Of course, having a strong team holding down the fort means that the executive team can step away from time to time to pursue their own interests, hobbies, and families beyond BEST.
"When we go around and ask why they chose BEST, almost always, people talk about … the way they were treated."Dolniak and her husband Steve are frequent travelers who are no strangers to hopping on a plane to spend some time at their second home in Naples, Fla., or boarding a cruise ship for an adventure at sea (the couple just returned from cruise No. 39). The two enjoy every opportunity they get to see the world, and Dolniak’s Facebook page is teeming with photos of their adventures—including Dolniak’s occasional forays into interior decorating for friends and family. Their furchild, Rupert, is a 17-years-young feline—and is part of the four-legged BEST family just like company mascot Newman, a rescue dog who has made every day Bring Your Dog to Work Day for the past six years since his adoption.
Basil Rudawsky, COO of BEST Transportation of St. Louis
Debbie and Basil have been working together for 17 years of their 31-year marriage—and they credit being diligent about establishing strict boundaries between their personal and professional lives as a key to their ongoing happiness. They have four children—Kasey, 28; Shannyn, 26; Leo, 24; and Tommy, 22. The two are devoted parents: “Our family is our entire world, and our four incredible children are independent and successful,” Debbie says. She and Basil are seasoned globetrotters in their own right, embarking on cruises and traveling abroad when they’re not enjoying their own second home in Sanibel Island, Fla., and pursuing their goal to run a marathon in every state, which is a finish line they’re nearly halfway to reaching.
BEST’s family-driven environment equates success with respect. Because as any successful luxury ground transportation operator knows, the quality and personal touch of the experience is what sets it apart from the rest.
“It’s all about respect, and it’s all about paying attention to the little things,” Debbie says. “Whether they’re a businessperson, part of a wedding, or a traveler going to and from the airport, we’re not just getting them from point A to point B: We’re giving them a really high-end experience. We’re their first and last impression of St. Louis, and we take that responsibility seriously.”